You may know Cohen from Eat Boston, the event company he founded that puts on shindigs like the annual Bacon and Beer Festival (and, appropriately, the Ice Cream Showdown). The man loves his ice cream, buying a quart or two a week for most of his adult life. Now, he and Ben Dryer are deliciously close to opening their own shop, bright white, full of fun artwork, and named for Cohen's infant daughter. Here's Cohen on how he develops flavors, what they'll offer at the shop, and more.
How did Gracie’s Ice Cream come about?
Ben Dryer of Sherman Cafe has been wanting to do an ice cream shop for a couple years. When Sherman opened, they actually had ice cream. I’ve always been passionate about ice cream, so mutual friends put us together, and it kind of worked out that way.
As a first-time owner, have you been surprised by anything in the process of getting this place opened?
Everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much money, that’s for sure.
Had you not had the Sherman connection to bring you to this particular space in Union Square, is there another neighborhood where you could have seen yourself opening a shop?
No. [Laughs.] I live around the corner, and I just like walking to work.
Aside from your own proximity, what do you think makes Union Square a good location for an ice cream shop?
Well, there isn’t an ice cream shop in Union Square — that’s one of the biggest things. And the people around here have pretty refined tastes but also want to be happy and comfortable with what they’re eating. It’s a unique area, kind of melting pot of all sorts of different stuff — Reliable Market over there, Bombay Market up the street. It’s just a neat spot.
"Ice cream is lucky in that if you put good stuff in, you get good stuff out, almost certainly."
How do you go about developing flavors?
I don’t know if this is the right way to do it, but I’ve been making chocolate truffles for a couple years, so I just think of how I would flavor chocolate truffles and kind of go from there. Ice cream is lucky in that if you put good stuff in, you get good stuff out, almost certainly. There’s a lot of guess work, and there’s a lot of playing on the edges. Is this one tablespoon of salt or is this two tablespoons of salt? Is it no salt? That kind of thing. I have a little Cuisinart ice cream maker that I haven’t actually used, but I think eventually when we get more serious about testing flavors that are kind of out there, we’ll be able to do a quart at a time, and that won’t tell us texture-wise whether we’re right, but it will let us know that the flavor is right.
What’s your dream weird flavor that you’d like to make?
Robin Cohen made a chocolate beet-flavored pie for a Pi Day party I was doing a couple years ago, and that’s one that I’ve been thinking a lot about. I guess I don’t really think in a "this is the flavor that I’m going to try to attain" way, but chocolate beet is something that I’ve been thinking about because I think people would like that, and I like beets, so I think it’d be cool. As far as "out there" flavors, I don’t know; I think Ben wants to do some vegetable flavors, so maybe we’ll start looking at that over the winter. Like I said, I don’t really think about flavors that way. Do you make ice cream? What’s your weird dream flavor?
I don’t. Nothing too weird in mind, but I love the combination of spicy things and chocolate.
One of the truffle flavors I make is cayenne and cinnamon chocolate so I imagine we’ll make something like that. I had originally wanted to have about 25% of our menu as chocolate flavors, but I don’t know if we’ll do that. We kind of have to wait and see in the ice cream store rulebook if you can get away with having chocolate Fluff instead of chocolate for a couple days, and if so, then we can get away with cayenne cinnamon chocolate for a couple days.
Do you remember the first flavor you ever tried?
The first ice cream flavor I remember trying or having was bubble gum. That was the first flavor that I remember having and then wanting again. I don’t know how old I was or what the situation would have been.
Mine was peppermint, I think.
Peppermint’s classic; we’ll probably do something like that in the winter.
Speaking of winter...since ice cream is kind of a seasonal food…
How dare you!
"I think that in Boston, ice cream isn’t seasonal the same way that it is elsewhere."
I eat it year-round! But does everybody? Are there things you’d do in the winter to make an extra effort to draw people in?
I think that in Boston, ice cream isn’t seasonal the same way that it is elsewhere. I remember being at East Coast Grill one time in January when it was around 15 degrees out and seeing people walk by with ice cream cones from Christina’s, so hopefully people will come in just because ice cream is good and they live in the neighborhood and they’re out to dinner. We’ll have events from time to time and maybe bring in different partners, kind of playing on the Eat Boston stuff.
Do you have any specific collaborations in mind with neighbors?
I mean, I’ve been getting a lot of ingredients at Market Basket, so I’ll go back. [Laughs.] But we have a lot of friends at Fringe, so we’ll probably do some stuff with them; people are doing stuff at Aeronaut and Brooklyn Boulders, so maybe we’ll get involved with that. Taza’s down the street. I don’t have anything specific planned. Maybe I’m going about this wrong, but I’m only focusing on being open and then figuring everything else out after that. It’s just how I’ve always operated, and I know it’s not the way that most people who open small businesses operate, but it’s the only way I know how.
Current favorite flavor?
That chocolate Fluff came out really nice, but I don’t know...I eat so much black raspberry chip. It’s always been my favorite since the first ice cream shop that I worked at. I think our vanilla is almost where I want it to be, in which case I’ll probably just take that home and put chocolate chips in it because that’s how I eat ice cream. But what’s my favorite? Probably the chocolate Fluff so far. Our chocolate is really good. [Laughs.]
Do you know your opening roster of flavors yet?
We had talked about only opening with six or eight flavors but that was before we got the new equipment, so I think we have nine or ten now — and then a few that I haven’t made yet but that I know exactly what I want to do. Like mint chocolate chip — we haven’t made that one yet, but I have an idea. We may open with 12 at this point. As soon as we know a flavor, then we’ll put it into the rotation and try figure out what the rotation is, so there may not always be black raspberry chip, for instance, but if that’s one of the popular flavors, it’ll be about every other time. We’ll have about 20 flavors in the rotation and try new flavors, and bump flavors, from time to time.
Will you offer toppings?
We’ll have some custom sundaes, and I think that we’ll have hot fudge, but that hasn’t been finalized. Minimal toppings. And once in awhile we might do sundae parties where we put out a bunch of toppings and people can come in and go crazy.
How about things around then ice cream in a cup or a cone, like frappes?
Frappes, smoothies, floats, ice cream sandwiches, ice cream cakes. All that stuff. We may just ramp up slowly so by the time we get to — when does "ice cream season" start? February? By the time we get to February, we’ll be totally where we want to be.
How old is your daughter Gracie?
So she’s probably not quite aware that there’s a place named after her?
No, I don’t know what that’s going to be like. You know how kids are — she’s not necessarily going to realize that there’s a place named after her, but at some point in a couple years, she’ll realize that not everybody has a place named after them. When you’re a kid, your world is what you know. When you cover a kid’s eyes, they don’t know that you’re actually behind there. I think she’ll just be aware that there’s a place called Gracie’s, and then she’ll just assume that everybody has a place named after them.
What kind of hours are you thinking about?
Depends on a few things. If we start selling coffee, then we’ll open up early, and if not, probably noon to nine or ten, depending on the night. At some point last year I was walking around at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and there were tons of people eating in all the restaurants. It’s not like that all the time, but it’s like that enough that people will want to have ice cream afterwards.
"We’re not going to have crazy super creative swiss chard ice cream."
Anything else you want people to know about Gracie’s?
Right now it’s Somerville’s only homemade ice cream; we’re making all the flavors, for the most part. Come try us in October. What I’m hoping to do — it feels weird to say "express myself in ice cream," but it’s just going to be silly desserts. Putting pie into ice cream or figuring out different stuff to put into cones. We’re going to have a cone with toasted Fluff in it, which is really nice. Maybe make chocolate truffles and put them into ice cream. I made an Early Grey truffle, and I thought chocolate ice cream with earl grey truffles in it would be good. That kind of thing. So we’re not going to have crazy super creative swiss chard ice cream, I don’t think. I don’t know if people want that, but I don’t want it right now. But maybe in a couple months I’ll get bored and want to make that.
22 Union Square, Somerville, MA